Chapter Twenty-Five: Liese’s First Housesitting
Dahl Island needed no words for praise as the image of its entirety basking in the orange hue of the early evening just looked that enchanting.
The island looked as if it was floating in the sea red skies as I looked at it from the landward side, and when we passed through the bridge connected to it, I felt the stone pressing on my chest finally fall off on our safe return.
Nolan stretched his hand and pulled me towards himself when I muttered, “We’ve finally returned.”
Well… What should I do?
The alarm bell rang in my heart rapidly when my shoulders and waist touched him.
An intense wave of nervousness flowed past my whole body at his hand, which was casually wrapped around my waist.
Maybe not doing anything was the right choice… For sure.
Cuddling like this may not be that bad. Although I was surprised by his unexpected actions, I calmed down after mulling it over for a while.
I quietly took a deep breath and somehow calmed down my rapid breathing and my racing heart.
The lakes scattered on the island here and there were like substantial black holes on the ground under the twilight. Nolan and I continued to look at the sporadically appearing holes from the carriage’s window in silence as they passed by.
“Is the master feeling unwell?”
Olivia called out to me as she looked outside through the kitchen window. At the edge of her line of sight was Nolan, standing motionlessly in the garden as if someone had cast a petrifying curse on him.
He stood there with his arms crossed, facing the setting sun as it radiated with an intense orange light.
It was as if he was immersed in his own world, with the twilight as the perfect background.
It had been several days since our return from the Royal Palace, and the time he had been in a trance with gloomy expressions like now had increased significantly. It wasn’t like he was a cheerful person either, though.
He had been getting up early like usual, moving around the whole day, but I was still intrigued about his current state.
“I don’t think he’s ill…”
It was pretty pathetic that I could only reply like that to Olivia.
I also wanted to help him, share his worries, and support him.
However, the deep groove that stretched between our hearts wouldn’t let me do that.
“I don’t think I’m really his wife, after all… Especially when I’m rendered confused at such junctures.”
Olivia gently patted my back when I let out such a feeble complaint.
“It’s natural to be like this, as it’s hard to adapt to such things from the get-go. Like building a house, the chemistry between husband and wife builds up little by little. After all, we are talking about two strangers who’ve never crossed each other’s paths before and have now become husband and wife.”
To further aggravate our situation, a bridge of lies was stretched between Nolan and me… It was a bridge that we couldn’t cross over, although it was also something we could see. And most likely, Nolan still had some things he had hidden that he couldn’t tell me yet.
I felt an ache in my heart when I gazed at Nolan, who looked as though deep trouble was gradually creeping in on him. I was also lamenting on how I couldn’t be by his side.
His platinum blonde hair was fluttering as the wind blew in the twilight. The evening’s wind was cold, but I don’t doubt that he will be feeling cold soon.
If there’s anything that can cheer up Nolan…
After a short contemplation, I poured mulled wine into a cup and placed a pear compote above it. Carrying that, I turned to the garden, walking towards Nolan who was still standing as though petrified.
I deliberately raised my voice to make him aware of my presence. I slid up to him from behind, stifling my footsteps, and when I arrived right behind him, I stretched my hand and cupped Nolan’s right cheek.
“Ahhh!” Nolan jumped like a spring, with his round eyes slowly returning to their original state as he quickly turned around and saw me. “Liese… What are you doing?”
“It’s cold out here, so I brought you something warm.” Saying so, I showed him the cup of wine. It was a savory wine with spices that warmed the body from the inside out. Of course, it came with a juicy pear compote handmade by Olivia.
In the Island, the mornings and evenings were pretty cold—especially with the occasionally blowing strong winds.
Nolan took the cup and said with a solemn face while looking at the compote, “A desert before dinner is…”
…As expected of His Highness. He sure was thorough in his discipline.
I spoke to His Highness while letting out an inadvertent chuckle. “The servants at the Teddy Viscounty would often eat them secretly. I also sneaked confectioneries and fruits now and then.”
Nolan stared at me, looking slightly surprised.
The wind blew, stealing away the temperature of my cheeks and my hands, disappearing into the vast world. I wrapped my fingers around the cup reflexively, seeking warmth.
“Olivia and I found these pears when we were in the middle of our walk.”
“I never knew there was a pear tree around here.”
I looked at Nolan triumphantly. He said to me with a reasonably serious look, “Tell me the location of the tree later.”
In fact, the pears we picked up were unfit to eat because they weren’t sweet. However, the compote made by Olivia was awfully delicious that it still went well with the bread and made for the perfect dessert.
I looked into the cup with a smile on my face at the sweet and juicy pear compote. It didn’t seem like Nolan would receive it willingly even though I brought it for him.
Wasn’t it a waste not to eat it just because the time was still before dinner?
I’ve even warmed it especially.
Since he didn’t seem like he was going to eat it any time soon, I decided to give the delicious dessert to myself.
Just then, Nolan said with his arms crossed as if he was stunned by what I did, “…Why did you even bring it for?”
I replied while tossing a big piece of pear into my mouth, “Because it’s cold out here—”
However, I couldn’t finish what I wanted to say as Nolan stretched out his hands and suddenly pulled me into his embrace. He brought his lips to my ears and whispered, “Being like this warms me more than wine or anything else.”
“Nolan-sama…” I assiduously held the cup as I was in Nolan’s arms, keeping it from slanting. My breath quickened at the sudden intimate contact.
“I am sure to have a heart attack one of these days if you continue to act like this without notifying me beforehand…”
“What do you mean by acting like this?”
I never expected he would ask me so straightforwardly. It’s tough to say what I mean.
I replied to him with an almost inaudible voice, “Like… When you’re going to kiss…”
“Did you know that a normal husband and wife doesn’t usually inform the other that they will do things like kissing beforehand?”
“Is… Is that how it is?”
He laughed sheepishly when I twisted my neck and looked at him inquisitively. “Nothing. I just wanted to say your name.”
“What does that even mean…?”
Nolan was giving me more and more surprises with his unpredictability. My face flared to the point that I was even surprised at myself.
He unwound his arms, and when I was released from his embrace, a sense of pity welled in me.
Just for a while longer, I wanted to stay in his arms for a bit more.
It would be very embarrassing for Nolan to read my feelings, so I stuffed the leftover compote into my mouth in a hurry to gloss over it and finally tilted the cup to drink the remaining wine.
However, Nolan suddenly snatched the cup from my hands. And just like that, he bent the cup and drained the last bit of wine into his mouth.
“Ehhh!? What are you doing…!? My…” But I was interrupted again as Nolan raised his voice and began to laugh.
“Didn’t you bring it for me?”
“But… But you said you didn’t want it…”
“I never said I didn’t want it.”
“No, I swear. I never said that.”
He did say it!
…No, wait, did he actually say it?
Maybe… He just didn’t say it clearly and in words.
When I stared at him sullenly, his face burst into a smile.
“Your face when you find yourself in a tough spot is really a sight to behold.”
“Please stop teasing me!”
Nolan smiled even more while entwining his fingers with mine. My heartbeat spiked up when he held my hands. The warmth of his fingers inserted between mine pushed my blood flow.
“It’s certainly cold here. Let’s return to the mansion.”
We turned to walk towards the mansion with our hands linked. I even wished that the road to the mansion could have been longer.
The night of the same day, I saw Nolan standing by the window in the corridor. He was just staring outside in silence. It was pitch black, with nothing noteworthy to look at. I tilted my head, wondering what he’d been looking at, and then it suddenly came to me.
…It’s the barn.
Right now, Nolan was staring in the direction of the barn shrouded in the darkness of the night.
It never came to me that his worries for the past several days could have had any connection with the barn.
I’m sure he will tell me the secret locked behind the basement door one day.
Although I thought so, I had a hunch that the basement would take Nolan far away from me.
It was around one week after we returned that Olivia was set to stay someplace else for the first time since I came to Dahl Island.
I buried myself in kitchen work diligently since morning came, and Olivia, who saw me kneading the pie dough, advised, “Madam, the crust may become too hard if you knead the dough too much.”
“I know, Olivia, so you go and prepare your luggage quickly. You don’t want to be late for your newborn grandchild, do you?”
Olivia, worried about my cooking, couldn’t distance herself from the kitchen. The news that one of Olivia’s daughters had gone into labor came to our doorstep not long ago. She planned to take a leave from the mansion for a few days to help her daughter, who had just given birth.
“Don’t forget to put some weight on it before baking the pie!”
“Yes, I know. Don’t worry.”
Oops. I almost forgot about that… Had not been for her reminder.
I wonder if I could find some weight in any of these drawers?
“Don’t put a wet cloth on the container repeatedly, even if it’s baked.”
“I know. Doing it will cause the pie dough to deform.”
How could she know about the very same mistake I made back in my parents’ home before?
“Please call me anytime, if anything happens. It’s her first child, so I’d still be taking time either way.”
I saw off Olivia while expressing my gratitude for her concern as she left carrying a big bag on her shoulder.
The mansion suddenly became quiet as she left, riding on a wagon.
Even the sounds of my footsteps echoed more than necessary.
I turned to the kitchen and began to fry the vegetables and minced meat. Honestly, I was pretty embarrassed to let Nolan eat my cooking because Olivia’s cooking was just that delicious.
Going through my memory, I have never seen Daphne personally cooking for her stepbrother, ever. But maybe it’s also one of the actual charms of marrying a poor count.
I have helped in the kitchen in the Teddy Viscounty before, so I wasn’t as clueless about cooking either.
When the pie was about to be done baking, Nolan returned to the mansion with Marco.
He returned at the perfect time! We can have lunch together.
My eyes met with Nolan’s as I dashed towards them, beaming with joy. He was sitting on the seat beside the entrance, changing from his work boots to easy-to-move-in slippers.
I said to Nolan excitedly, “Nolan, are you hungry?”
“I’m sorry, but I have to go out immediately.”
“Ehhh…? Where… Where are you going to?”
“To Viscount Varda’s place.”
Viscount Varda. Even I know that name because he was a viscount living in the Royal Capital, the same as the Teddy Viscounty.
However, shouldn’t Nolan be avoiding interacting with any aristocrats? So why…?
“Then… Then you’re going to the Royal Capital? Right now?”
“No, I heard he was at my maternal uncle’s place (Peter’s father). Seemingly he has expressed coming especially to meet me. That’s why I’m really sorry, but I have to go there immediately.”
Just when I did my best to make a pie…
Why does it have to be at this time… Viscount Varda’s timing’s not good.
I might be seen as a petty-minded woman if I mumbled out my complaints, so I kept my silence. I thought of cutting away the pie and having Nolan bring it with him, but I couldn’t say that seeing how much in a hurry he was.
With nothing to do, I looked at Nolan going to the second floor to begin preparation for their departure from the base of the stairs.
Maybe Marco sensed my melancholy as he rushed to the second-floor corridor and talked to Nolan.
“Nolan-sama, a nice smell is coming from the kitchen… What could it be?”
“You should also hurry with your preparation.”
“Errr, Nolan-sama, how about we check the kitchen…?”
“Just say if you’re hungry, Marco. I’m going ahead, and you come after having your fill.”
“Ehhh!? No. That’s not what I meant…”
“If you’re not hungry, then get yourself ready! We’ll be late in our return if we don’t depart soon.”
I stood still like a doll at the staircase landing, listening to the master and servant’s conversation.
Apparently, Marco was doing his all to somehow turn Nolan’s attention to my cooking in the kitchen. But Nolan was so hurried that he didn’t notice his hints.
Thud. Thud. They came down from the stairs, and I could only helplessly send them off.
Nolan quickly changed into riding boots and opened the gate at the entrance.
As if realizing something, Nolan turned to me, who stood there listlessly, pulled me into his arms, and kissed me on my forehead.
“I’m off. I will try to return quickly.”
Like this, I suddenly become the only one left in the mansion.
Feeling exhausted, I turned back to the kitchen with feeble steps, slumped down, and sat on a chair.
…It’s the most delicious pie I‘ve ever baked.
The pie I’ve made so excitedly currently only had me sitting in front of it.
I vacantly stared at the pie, which had steam swaying out from it, all alone in the mansion that was now shrouded in a pin drop silence.
The mansion had fallen into a slumber with no Ricardo or Olivia present anywhere.
The area around the mansion was thriving with trees and lakes, and although they looked just as beautiful as they always did, they seemed strangely permeating with loneliness today.
I felt bored when the housework was done. With nothing else left to do, it was as if my heart had been squeezed dry.
I could not sit quietly anymore when the sun went down, so I draped a coat over myself, went in front of the mansion, and waited for their return.
I strained my eyes when the sounds of hooves eventually echoed in my surrounding.
…Did they come back?
Two people were heading here.
The person on horseback coming in at the front, with his large, round physique to the side, couldn’t be Nolan nor Marco. It was like a giant ball was riding on the horse.
My enthusiasm immediately died when I saw that it was not Nolan. The familiar silhouette of that person finally arrived at a distance from where I could easily see their face.
Realizing who that person coming here was, I stiffened.
The person riding on a horse that had arrived before me was Charles Teddy, my stepbrother who was supposed to be at the Teddy Viscounty.
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